The parsha, Torah portion, we read this past week, Mishpatim, presents the basis for a civil society based on law.
Interestingly, the word, משפט, mishpat, also means a sentence, a group of words which work together to communicate a specific meaning with much more power and precision than residing in the individual words. Like a civil society, it’s based on rules, in this case the rules of grammer. Just as people need to work cooperatively together in order to benefit from being part of a community, words need to work together in order to communicate.
One feature of Hebrew, לשון הקודש, lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue, is that words sharing a core of letters are connected. Changing just one letter, the ט, tet, for a ח, chet (these two letters are adjacent in the Hebrew alphabet and, thus, differ by only one number, 9/8, in our system of assigning numeric value to each letter), and adding the feminine ending, ה, hei, we transform משפט, mishpat to משפחה, mishpacha, family, the smallest unit and most fundamental building block of a functioning society. Because of the intimacy of a family, it is even more dependent than society as a whole on structures and rules. Parents are given authority, not because they’re inherently “better” than children, but because this authority, which creates order and structure, is absolutely critical to the functioning of the family.
Families, greater societies and language all benefit from a phenomenon known as synergy where the total is greater than the sum of individual members/parts. This is one explanation of our millennia-long commitment to community that has been so central to the Jewish people. The reason we emphasize living and working with community, אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, al tifros min ha-tzibur, don’t separate yourself from the community (Avot, 2:4), is not to support separatism nor to say that, somehow, Jews are better than others, but rather because only by living and working within the group do we internalize the values and structures of our tradition and begin to appreciate their inner logic and beauty. In general, complaints about the arbitrariness of halacha, Jewish law, usually come from people who try to analyze it from outside, rarely from those who actually experience it.
Of course there are those people with exceptional inner strength and commitment, I’m certainly not one of them, who are able to “stay the course” in isolation. The rest of us receive much of our self-identity from our surroundings. Perhaps a trivial example, but if you shop for groceries in an upscale market, you really do “feel like a million dollars”, while shopping at the “bargain center” can easily make you feel like a loser, although the actual prices are generally not that far apart. Living a halachically-based life in an observant community makes you feel part of your world, but without that community you feel like an outcast.
We’re taught that God is not far away, but in our very midst, לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא, lo b’shamayim, not in heaven, and וְלֹא־מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, v’lo me’ever l’yam, and not across the sea (דברים ל:י”ב-י”ג, Devarim 30, 12 and 13). We begin from our center and work outward, within our family and then within our people, to create the supportive, synergistic society, structured through משפטים, mishpatim, basic laws, that allows us to flourish as individuals and raise Creation to its highest potential.